Reviews

A Review of Two Stoker Award Nominees in Poetry

 

By Karen L. Newman

 

When the final ballot for the Horror Writers’ Association 2006 Stoker Awards was announced, I wasn’t surprised to see Shades Fantastic (Gromagon Press) by Bruce Boston and The Troublesome Amputee by John Edward Lawson (Raw Dog Screaming Press) among the works nominated for superior achievement in poetry. Although totally different in style and substance, these two talented poets are fine examples of the best writers in genre poetry.

 

 

Bruce Boston delivers another great collection in Shades Fantastic. He shows again why he was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Most of the poems are reprinted from fine genre publications such as Asimov’s SF Magazine and Strange Horizons, including “Heavy Weather”, the 2005 Asimov’s Readers’ Award. He includes just five new poems, the only fault I can find with the book. The collection is beautifully illustrated by the talented Marge Simon, Boston’s wife.

 

It’s easy to become a fan of Bruce Boston. He writes about common things and speculates about them. His words flow on the page with a lyrical beat and strong imagery, as illustrated in the first stanza of my favorite poem in the collection “In the Course Morn”:

Brown lies the landscape,

once green through the year.

In the mean market stalls

the fruit is hard and dry.

Dust must be wiped from

the scales and weights

several times each day.

The meter here reminds me of Robert Frost. Hidden meaning abounds and the internal rhyme of dust and must and the consonance in the title are clever, making the poem memorable. The other poems are of as high a quality.

 

 

Whereas Bruce Boston’s style is flowing and meandering like a brook, John Edward Lawson’s poetry jumps out and burrows inside my mind with the precision of a scalpel. He takes risks with his readers and is not afraid of offending them. In The Troublesome Amputee, Lawson writes about an office worker’s encounter with an amputee on the side of the road, the title of the poem the same as that of the collection. The worker’s disgust is displayed as well as his lack of pity. At first I was appalled, but not for what is obvious. Lawson cleverly uses the amputee as the symbol of any

scorned person or group in our society. All of his poems are thought-provoking. Lawson’s high intelligence shines throughout his work. This can be illustrated in the second stanza of my favorite poem, “Marvels of Horror”, which is nominated for a Rhysling Award:

Mr. Fantastic

He’s a genius with chiseled features

who does everything with perfection

But the masses don’t want

to be saved from their impurities

-         and they don’t mind making a mess

when slaughtering their idols

Lawson also uses consonance to his advantage like Boston and this passage also flows, but I’m not left with a smooth impression. The Troublesome Amputee has stayed with me, even though I read it months ago. This is the best collection I’ve read in years and I’ve become a fan of Lawson’s work.

 

Michael A. Arnzen, winner of the Bram Stoker Award for his novel, Grave Markings, wrote the introduction to The Troublesome Amputee. In it he said that this is “the good stuff”. He’s right. Not only is the poetry well-written, but the book is well-organized into three sections, each defining different types of amputation. This book is graphically illustrated in photographs and drawings by M. Garrow Bourke. This collection is not for those with weak stomachs.

 

Shades Fantastic and The Troublesome Amputee are two excellent, albeit totally opposite, poetry collections, each deserving of a Stoker nomination.

 

 

Flashes Of The Other World

by Julie Ann Shapiro

Pulpbits, 2006

 

Review by Carole Ann Moleti

 

I admire Julie Ann Shapiro's ability to turn out these short shorts in sufficient quantity to create a collection. There are forty-six pieces, some only three paragraphs and none longer than six pages. Flash fiction is not easy to write; all of the elements must be compressed into a few words.

 

Admittedly, several stories with themes of anomie and disconnection from reality left me scratching my head saying "Huh?"  However, others grabbed me, leaving me disgusted, moved, saddened, or amused. Most piqued my interest enough for me to re-read the clipped prose with its creative punctuation, grammar, and spelling.

 

"Chocolate Flight" is a gut churning account of a young girl’s first solo airplane flight. "Marmalade Waffles" brought tears to my eyes as a young woman reflects on breakfasts with

her dad, before tragedy strikes. "Lunch Not The Typical Fare" takes you inside the head of a psychiatric patient. "Blue Moon No Carbs" embodies every dieter’s worst fears.

 

Many of the stories use food as clever devices. “Whipped Fumery” involves guy and a can of whipped cream. In “Don’t Mix Carrots and Peas” veggies make an escape from a moldy end in a refrigerator drawer. A vegetarian’s nightmare over chicken parts is revealed in “Bird Encounters.”

 

Heavy on allegory, metaphor and symbolism, much is left to the reader’s interpretation. But in two of my favorites, Shapiro interprets the surreal with a big dose of paranormal. Both involve relationships: In “The Old Woman In the Dream” a girl and her grandmother, and in “Looking Glass” a girl, her mother, and their dog.

 

The dreamlike quality of many of the stories left me feeling like I just woke up after a particularly strange night of somnolent problem solving. A childlike tone and perspective infuses many of the pieces. The collection contains stories with both male and female protagonists, and while it feels slanted towards the feminine perspective, there is a sense of balance.

 

Shapiro’s themes also include coming of age, racism, abuse, aging, vengeance, parent-child and intimate partner relationships, and mental illness. Most of the stories are dark and involve heavy doses of internal conflict, which is sometimes not transmitted into external conflict. Resolution is also subject to interpretation. A reader looking for action and finite endings is forewarned.

 

“Red Dot on the Wall” is one of the best evocations I have ever read on a woman’s battle with guilt over reproductive choice and infertility. And the creepiest are accounts of sexual abuse of children and adolescents by grandfathers, a teacher and a stranger, plus a murder or two.

 

If the goal of flash fiction is to give the reader an opportunity to take in something during a quick downtime moment and move on, then Shapiro has achieved it. Like modern art, this abstract, minimalist style is not my favorite. But the stories are short enough that if you don’t care for the piece, or don’t get it, you can move on to the next without feeling cheated.

 

The PDF format is well suited to this collection, which once downloaded, could stand in place of your thought for the day calendar for a month or two. Flashes of the Other World is published by Pulpbits, whose motto, Instant Gratification printed over a paper bag, opens a quick, mostly satisfying read.

 

 

Soylent Green Is Corn!

 

Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

by Michael Pollan

The Penguin Press HC, 2006

 

Review by Cory Ellen Gatrall
 

 

When my parents came to visit in May, it was clear that my stepfather had Gotten Religion. “You have to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” he gushed. “It has completely changed the way I eat.”

 

I reluctantly promised, dreading what I might find inside its pages.

 

You see, I’d already completely changed the way I ate. Several times. When I was twelve, I followed my best friend into vegetarianism, promptly fell off the wagon, and rededicated myself a year later. At twenty-two, just out of the hospital and feeling woozy, I began to eat meat again. Over the next several years I dove into Atkins, lapsed into South Beach, abandoned all hope (and gained twenty-five pounds) with McDonalds and Burger King, detoxed (and lost twenty-five pounds) with Whole Foods, and eventually settled into a comfortable routine I liked to call “Not Worrying About It.” So it was with some trepidation that I began to read. 

 

 

My anxiety was well-founded. Pollan’s book traces the history of four meals, which he calls in turn Industrial, Organic Industrial, Grass-Fed, and The Perfect Meal. In each section, he delicately weaves together the story of the development of modern North American gustatory culture with his personal adventures in consumption. The resulting picture isn’t pretty.

 

An industry invested in producing cheap, well-preserved foods would be foolish not to use the most highly subsidized crop in the United States wherever possible. That is why we are now, as assessed by a biologist quoted in the first chapter,

“corn chips with legs.” From soda (high fructose corn syrup) to hamburgers (cattle are corn-fed, which leads to all kinds of problems) to fresh

cucumbers (corn-derived wax), Zea Mays is everywhere. The result? Pollan’s Industrial Meal, from McDonalds, is revealed by a mass spectrometer to be made mostly of corn — in fact, the menu item which contains the least amount of corn is the French fry, at 23%.

 

The rest of the book is no more heartening. To eat well, it turns out, is both a complicated and an expensive proposition. Whole Foods, that paragon of Health and Nature, is revealed to be a less-than-perfect compromise between what is good for the individual and what is good for the planet. While foods found there may not contain pesticides, they may well have traveled over 500 miles via fossil-fuel-guzzling, smoke-belching vehicles in order to rest, deceptively pristine, in a rustic-looking crate.

 

Pollan devotes his longest single chapter to this phenomenon, which he terms “Big Organic.” This chapter, in fact, was my only sticking point in the book. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, would seem, from the table of contents, to contain only three meals: Industrial/Corn, Pastoral/Grass, and Personal/The Forest. The Big Organic chapter, inserted into the Pastoral/Grass section, reads as though written after the rest of the book, when Pollan realized that the tense marriage between Organic and Industry would not fit neatly into any of the three sections. Nor does the culminating description of the Organic Industrial meal rate its own chapter, as do the other meals, but rather is only briefly described before an agonized debate over the ethics of Big Organic, summed up with the pat sentence, “Oh well, at least we didn’t eat it in the car.”

 

(Lest I seem overly critical, the subject of this chapter is immense, and truly requires its own book. I hope Pollan writes that book; I look forward to reading it.)

 

After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I have once again changed the way I eat, though not completely. I still shop at Whole Foods, though I make a more concerted effort to buy local produce and meat whenever possible. I don’t eat less processed food, but then I ate very little before reading the book. I have not eaten red meat, nor will I again in the foreseeable future, unless I am certain that it is grass-fed. The biggest boon I have received from this book is my increased awareness of the route my dinner has taken to reach my table, and for that I am grateful to Michael Pollan. My husband may not share my gratitude, however, as he is heartily sick of my new mantra: “Did you know there’s corn in that, too?”

 

 

The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten:

100 Experiments For The Armchair Philosopher

by Julian Baggini

Plume, 2006

 

Review by Annika Barranti

 

I have very little knowledge of philosophy in general; in fact, it has always been relegated to a punchline (you know the cartoon – “will philosophize for food”). So it was with great excitement that I opened a Christmas gift from an old friend who'd chosen two books on the subject: The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten by Julian Baggini and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy, edited by James B. South  (of the latter, the less said the better – let’s just say I was disappointed). The Christmas tree is a rather nontraditional place to mine for review materials, I know, but this is hardly a traditional literary journal.

 

 

The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten is subtitled “100 Experiments For The Armchair Philosopher.” I have an armchair and I love experiments – all that remained was some philosophizing.

 

Each chapter is an “experiment,” little stories, situations, parables in which a moral dilemma is illustrated and both sides presented. As I browsed the book (which is, in this case, exactly the same as reading it but slightly less linear) it occurred to me that it was something like a teacher’s aid; as a textbook might give

information followed by guided topics of discussion, so does this book.

 

I enjoyed a number of the experiments in subject matter, though others were outside my range of experience and therefore of less interest. I took this as a good sign: not only is there something for everyone, but readers will be encouraged to expand their thought horizons.

 

Two of the experiments on art caught my attention: #37, "Nature the Artist," and #66, "The Forger." "Nature the Artist" presents the dilemma of an art gallery curator who discovers that one of her favorite pieces is not a carved masterpiece at all, but a happy accident of nature: Without human intent, is it art?  "The Forger" describes a man who has created a work of art and is passing it off as a work by a famous artist, claiming that if it is judged as good as the artist’s work, it is worth the same amount of money. Is he wrong because he is after monetary gain?

 

The joy and curse of the experiments—and, I suspect, of moral philosophy in general—is that there is no right answer. For any individual, any of the experiments may seem cut and dried, but it would be nigh impossible to find consensus. 

 

I imagine one might use the book in any of a number of ways: as a daily brain exercise, much like a crossword or Sudoku puzzle; as a reference point for group discussions; for team-building discussion topics at corporate retreats; or as a useful tool for home-schooling families (or indeed any family wishing to encourage philosophical thinking).

 

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